Obama, Mitch McConnell start anew to warm up their relationship

Common ground between Obama, Senate leader Mitch McConnell has been in short supply. Will that change?

President Obama and soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell staged their first White House one-on-one since the midterm election shifted control of the Senate to Republicans, opening a new chapter Wednesday in what has been a cool and distant relationship.

A White House official spoke politely of the "opportunity to cooperate" with McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, but said little else about what the two discussed. McConnell told reporters that they talked about issues on which they could find common ground.

There were few signs that the hourlong confab will usher in warm relations between the two. But McConnell's ascent to the helm of the Senate in the new year means the two men — the president looking to wind down his tenure with a win or two and the shrewd political operator reaching the peak of a 30-year career — are going to have to start trying a little harder.

Step one was not a cocktail hour, the prospect of which Obama once memorably made the butt of a joke, but an afternoon get-together in the Oval Office. It was just their third private meeting; until now, they have had relatively little reason to cultivate a close working relationship.

And common ground between them has been in short supply during Obama's six years in office. Not far into Obama's first term, McConnell declared his primary political objective to be making him a one-term president.

Two springs ago, Obama derisively laughed off suggestions from commentators that he could heal the rift by simply sharing a beverage with McConnell. "Really?" he replied in a cutting line he delivered at a Washington dinner. "Why don't you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?"

"What relationship?" said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the outgoing majority leader, when asked what he had observed of the Obama-McConnell rapport.

Of course, the ground has shifted in recent months. McConnell is poised to take over leadership in the Senate after a grinding campaign season that resulted in devastating losses for Obama's party. In McConnell's reelection race this year, he set the standard for a Republican campaign effort largely built on tying Democratic candidates to the president by doing so with his foe, Alison Lundergan Grimes.

There are some hints that Obama and McConnell might be able to work together. McConnell has noted that he's the only Republican who brokered major deals with the White House — a pair of agreements on George W. Bush-era tax rates, and one to end a 2011 debt ceiling crisis.

Aides to the president insist he is open to collaboration.

"There are opportunities for us to find common ground and move the country forward," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday. "We're going to disagree on some things … but we shouldn't let that get in the way of working on things we agree on."

The first big test of the relationship will come soon. McConnell has said he doesn't want to see the government shut down, but lawmakers in his party may be headed for a clash with Obama over funding the government in the coming year.

After Republicans won a resounding victory last month, McConnell pledged to meet Obama in the political center, ticking off issues like trade and tax reform where they could probably reach deals.

But he warned Tuesday that he was concerned about the president's approach in the month since voters delivered what he called an electoral "butt-kicking" to Democrats. Since then, Obama announced a deal with China on curbing greenhouse gas emissions and reset his immigration policy to protect as many as 5 million people from deportation, two actions Republicans decried as a power grab.

"By any objective standard, the president got crushed in this election," McConnell said. "So I've been perplexed by the reaction since the election, this sort of in-your-face dramatic move to the left. So I don't know what we can expect in terms of reaching bipartisan agreement."

McConnell's public comments indicated what aides have said is a real suspicion among Republicans about whether Obama was more interested in using his final two years to work for bipartisan agreements that could prove politically beneficial to both parties, or continue to stoke divisions with Republicans in an effort to boost his party and keep the White House in Democratic hands. An initially unannounced visit to the White House on Wednesday by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who also met with Obama, could serve to fuel such worries.

White House aides have similar concerns about McConnell. One official acknowledged the success that Vice President Joe Biden has had in negotiating with his former longtime Senate colleague. But the official said McConnell may have different motivations now as majority, not minority, leader.

Manley described McConnell's demeanor in congressional leadership meetings as resembling Reid's style: tight-lipped, reserved, hard to read.

"He keeps his cards close to the vest and doesn't do a lot of talking if he doesn't have to. He's perfectly respectful," Manley said, noting that heated exchanges and sharp verbal jabs usually came from others in the room.

To the degree Reid and McConnell learned to work together, the cooperation was based more on a recognition of mutual benefit, rather than a personal connection.

"It's not like they went out socializing together, but both were smart enough to realize that the only way they were going to get things done was if the two cooperated," Manley said, acknowledging recently that even that transactional relationship has deteriorated.

An additional complication for Obama and McConnell is how their interest in launching a new phase of their relationship will play among restive parties. McConnell's Republicans are newly empowered and eager for confrontation. Obama's Democrats are dispirited and increasingly at odds with one another.

Given that dynamic, Wednesday's meeting was more about taking stock of each other than beginning negotiation.

Rather than the made-for-TV "bourbon summit" some had suggested following last month's election, both sides went into the meeting emphasizing it was to be an all-business — and very much private — encounter.

That's a departure from a luncheon Obama convened with a broader, bipartisan group of congressional leaders last month that welcomed cameras in briefly. A source close to McConnell dubbed that a "Seinfeld meeting," a meeting about nothing.

As for Wednesday's meeting, "no, this was not the bourbon summit," McConnell told CNN. "But I'm still hoping we'll have it."

Times staff writer Kathleen Hennessey in Washington contributed to this report.

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